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Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a test that uses a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy to make pictures of organs and structures inside the body. In many cases MRI gives different information about structures in the body than can be seen with an X-ray, ultrasound, or computed tomography (CT) scan. MRI also may show problems that cannot be seen with other imaging methods.

For an MRI test, the area of the body being studied is placed inside a special machine that contains a strong magnet. Pictures from an MRI scan are digital images that can be saved and stored on a computer for more study. The images also can be reviewed remotely, such as in a clinic or an operating room. In some cases, contrast material may be used during the MRI scan to show certain structures more clearly.

See pictures of a standard MRI machine camera and an open MRI machine camera.

Why It Is Done

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is done for many reasons. It is used to find problems such as tumors, bleeding, injury, blood vessel diseases, or infection. MRI also may be done to provide more information about a problem seen on an X-ray, ultrasound scan, or CT scan. Contrast material may be used during MRI to show abnormal tissue more clearly. An MRI scan can be done for the:

  • Head. MRI can look at the brain for tumors, an aneurysm, bleeding in the brain, nerve injury, and other problems, such as damage caused by a stroke. MRI can also find problems of the eyes and optic nerves, and the ears and auditory nerves.
  • Chest. MRI of the chest can look at the heart, the valves, and coronary blood vessels. It can show if the heart or lungs are damaged. MRI of the chest may also be used to look for breast or lung cancer.
  • Blood vessels. Using MRI to look at blood vessels and the flow of blood through them is called magnetic resonance angiography (MRA). It can find problems of the arteries and veins, such as an aneurysm, a blocked blood vessel, or the torn lining of a blood vessel (dissection). Sometimes contrast material is used to see the blood vessels more clearly.
  • Abdomen and pelvis. MRI can find problems in the organs and structures in the belly, such as the liver, gallbladder, pancreas, kidneys, and bladder. It is used to find tumors, bleeding, infection, and blockage. In women, it can look at the uterus and ovaries. In men, it looks at the prostate.
  • Bones and joints. MRI can check for problems of the bones and joints, such as arthritis, problems with the temporomandibular joint, bone marrow problems, bone tumors, cartilage problems, torn ligaments or tendons, or infection. MRI may also be used to tell if a bone is broken when X-ray results are not clear. MRI is done more commonly than other tests to check for some bone and joint problems.
  • Spine. MRI can check the discs and nerves of the spine for conditions such as spinal stenosis, disc bulges, and spinal tumors.